HTC DROID DNA review: Is it the Ultimate DROID?

Earlier in the year, HTC redefined themselves with the One X and One S. While both phones landed in the U.S., for whatever reason Verizon Wireless didn’t offer either one. Instead they opted to take the One S, destroy it, and call it the DROID Incredible 4G LTE. The One X should have been the 3rd chapter in the DROID Incredible series, just like it was for Sprint’s EVO series. How was it possible that probably the best phone of the year wasn’t on Big Red? When the One X+ was announced a couple of months ago, I assumed that’s what Verizon was waiting for, but there was no indication. As a Verizon customer, I was severely disappointed and annoyed, but all good things come to those who wait. Apparently HTC and Verizon were readying the crème de la crème to finish off the year with a bang. Based on the J Butterfly, The DROID DNA appears to be the most cutting edge phone to date and promises to have the same quality of materials and camera that HTC has been known for. Is this the ultimate DROID? Hit the break to find out, but you can also check out my initial hands on review as well as our hands on at the launch event.

This post has been updated in the Battery and Closing sections.

Design

HTC is one of the leaders when it comes to fit and finish and the DROID DNA is no exception. The One X was already one of the most superior phones in terms of quality, but somehow they were able to step it up. It has a similar polycarbonate back, but it sports more of a soft rubbery touch. The one downside is that it’s a fingerprint and smudge magnet. It’s almost impossible to keep it smudge free, but hey, who plans on staring at the back of their phone all day? The rubberized feel is non slippery and gives you a fantastic grip.

It’s not the thinnest phone in the world because at the highest point it’s 9.73mm, but it still feels pretty thin because of the rounded back. The edges are only 4mm thick, but it expands to the center where it hits 9.73mm. It kind of feels like a Hershey’s candy bar. That’s not a bad thing because when you hold the phone, you place your fingers at the sides which is the thinnest part, while the thickest part rests in your palm and fits perfectly. I know it’s a cliche, but it really does feel great in the hand considering it has a whopping 5-inch display. The Samsung Galaxy Note II sports a 5.5-inch display, but is so much bigger when comparing the two. When comparing it to the One X, it’s about the same width, but it”s a little taller. My hands are on the smaller side and I had no issues with the size whatsoever. I’m starting to wonder if 5-inches is the new sweet spot.

What really makes the DROID DNA a thing of beauty is the Lamborghini-inspired aluminum red grill that you will find along the right and left sides. Most manufacturers would have gone with the color silver, but HTC has used red a lot in the past, and it makes the perfect accent on a black phone. You will also find a similar red accent around the 8MP rear camera lens. Overall, the DROID DNA has an EVO type of look, but more polished.

As with most HTC phones, you will find the power button at the top, but this time it sits in the middle. To the left of it is the microphone jack and the SIM slot is to it’s right. Along the right side towards the top you will find the volume rocker that sports the same red color as the aluminum red grill. The microUSB port is usually found on the left side on HTC phones, but they finally decided to move it to the bottom, which is the better place. Unfortunately they put a cover on it, which is a little annoying. It’s kind of a pain to put back in place, but I guess if you’re going to include it, you might as well make it a tight fit. They decided to include the cover because the phone is splash resistant.

Another nice addition is the notification light on the back to the left of the camera lens. It serves two purposes. It lights up for your notifications, but is also lights up when taking a picture.

You won’t find a microSD slot for expanding storage, which is a downer for some folks. You get 16GB of storage, which is more than enough for the average user. The other negative is that it’s a unibody design, so you won’t be able to remove the battery. This could be a deal breaker for some, but more on that later.

In terms of fit and finish, you won’t find a better phone than the DROID DNA. The only other phones that are in the same ballpark is the DROID RAZR HD / RAZR MAXX HD and the iPhone 5.

Hardware

If you’re going to make a high quality phone, you need to back it up with hardware, and HTC did just that. It packs a 5-inch (1920 x 1080) Super LCD 3 display at 440ppi, a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, 2GB of RAM, an 8MP rear camera with ImageSense, 2.1MP front facing camera with an 88 degree wide angle lens, 16GB of internal storage, 2020mAh battery, NFC, 4G LTE with worldwide GSM capability, and Beats Audio.

Performance

I already had a chance to try out the Snapdragon S4 Pro on the LG Optimus G so I already had a good idea what to expect. I am happy to report that Sense 4+ doesn’t in any way degrade the performance of the quad-core. Coupled with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, it’s blazing fast. It seriously shreds anything you want to throw at it. I know many of you are benchmark fans so I did the obligatory AnTuTu which came in at 14,544. That’s considerably higher than the Optimus G’s 11.213. Seriously, I’m not sure who can tell the difference, but if you crave power, the DROID DNA will satisfy everything you desire.

HTC already had the finest display ever with the One X so what could they possibly do for an encore? The One X sported a Super LCD 2 display at 720p, and the DROID DNA is now a Super LCD 3 at 1080p. It sports 440ppi which is higher than your TV. Some may say it’s overkill for a phone, but that’s nonsense. It truly is breathtaking as the colors are vibrant, blacks are deep, and everything just pops out at you. As you would expect, the viewing angles are amazing and it performs very well in sunlight. Now if you’re familiar with the One X, you will probably find this display to be only marginally better, but it’s still an improvement. So to recap: HTC now has the two best displays ever on a smartphone. Not bad at all.

As with all the latest HTC phones, the audio is enhanced with Beats. On top of that, HTC included two amplifiers in the phone. The microphone jack gets its own dedicated 2.55 volt amplifier and the other pushes the rear speaker. This helps minimize distortion at higher volumes. I think HTC is a little underrated when it comes to sound quality. The Beats partnership has always been considered a “marketing” gimmick, but I would rather have it on my phone than not.

Another area I found to be outstanding was the radio. I have LTE in my area, but my house is right at the fringe. All the Verizon phones I have tested always switch back and forth from LTE to 3G, but this phone rarely was on 3G.

Battery

No matter how amazing a phone is, there always seems to be something holding it from being perfect, and the battery just might be the DNA’s Achilles heel. I knew going into this review that it was the key, so I spent a considerable amount of time analyzing it. A 1080p screen is going to take its toll on any battery, and a 2020mAh battery is average based on today’s standards. HTC reps seemed confident that the Snapdragon S4 Pro is efficient enough to make it work. Unfortunately it’s not the case, but it’s not complete doom and gloom. It’s not like it’s as bad as the Verizon Galaxy Nexus, but there are a number of phones that are better. My main test is to run continuous video while connected to 4G LTE, while the display is set at 2/3 brightness, GPS on, WiFi on (not connected), and Bluetooth on (not connected). It yielded 6 hours and 11 minutes. In comparing it to some of the latest phones that I did the same test on, it didn’t fare too well:

  • Motorola ATRIX HD – 4 hours 45 min (this was really bad)
  • Sony Xperia Ion – 6 hours
  • DROID DNA – 6 hours 11 minutes
  • AT&T HTC One X – 7 hours
  • Sprint LG Optimus G – 7 hours 30 min
  • DROID Incredible 4G LTE – 7 hours 45 min
  • DROID RAZR M – 8 hours
  • AT&T LG Optimus G – 8 hours
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II – 9 hours 30 min
  • DROID RAZR HD – About 10 hours
  • DROID RAZR MAXX HD – 13 hours 30 min

So what does this mean in terms of daily use? With moderate use, you should get about double the times you get in the rundown tests and sometimes more than that with the better performing phones. I was able to get 13 hours while connected to 4G LTE full time, which isn’t great, but after living with the Verizon Galaxy Nexus for the past year, it’s an improvement. I also tried it while connected to WiFi 90% of the time, and I was able to get a little over 14 hours with about 15% to spare. I then let it sit idle without turning on the display for about 6 hours and it had 4% left. So yes, it made it to 20 hours, which isn’t bad, but 6 hours of it was idle time.

Now obviously the display is the biggest culprit here, and all of my tests are done at 2/3 brightness. Some may consider that high, but I like to run tests that are at a level that people would like to see their phone set at with the option of scaling it back. I’m going to see how things go with the display at around 40% brightness and update my results.

Update 1: I’m now getting about 17 hours of life while connected to 4G LTE full time with the display at about 50%. This is with moderate usage and is an improvement over what I got during the review process. It’s always been assumed that batteries get better after a few charges, and I have never found this to be the case with most phones. With this particular phone, it really has made a difference. It might have something to do with the Snapdragon S4 Pro, but either way, it’s nice to see an improvement.

The bottom line is that the battery is certainly not the main selling point of the DROID DNA, but depending on your situation, it’s not too bad if you are able to charge it regularly. For example, I always have a charger in my car and the plus side is this phone is compatible with Qi wireless chargers. There will be an accessory available, but it’s also compatible with other 3rd party pads. While in the office, you can conveniently give it a little extra juice. Unfortunately, if you’re a hardcore traveler, this phone might not be for you since you won’t be able to swap batteries. If there is one thing I am disappointed in with the DNA, it’s the battery, but based on my lifestyle, it’s not a deal breaker for me.

Software

The DROID DNA features the latest version of Sense, which is 4+ on top of Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. It’s not the latest version of Android, but it should satisfy most people. Sense 4+ hasn’t changed all that much from what we saw on the One X and One S, but there are some differences. Navigating between home screens now has the circular carousel that was found in Sense 3, but thankfully it doesn’t have the 100 mph spinning animation. The biggest improvement is the keyboard. I hated the Sense keyboard, and now it’s more like the keyboards you see on other Android phones. The big change is the numbers/symbol key is to the bottom left instead of the bottom right, which makes a big difference. Other changes are more subtle like more refined fonts and icons, along with some changes to the camera app. Of course you will also get the newer stock Android features like Google Now, expanded notifications, and easier widget placement on home screens. Sense isn’t something I desire on a phone, but it’s livable when you consider what this phone offers.

As far as running certain apps, such as games, you could run into a problem with the display and compatibility. Brad Molen from Engadget found issues with Need For Speed: Most Wanted and Angry Birds. This is probably due to the display ratio and some games not supporting it. It’s probably a temporary issue since more and more phones will be released with similar displays in the near future. As with many of the newer phones, it’s expected that a few apps might need to be updated.

As far as bloatware goes, you will find your usual suspects, but they also included a new Amazon app suite. It’s similar to the Nexus 7 media widget that shows your recent purchases of books, magazines, and videos. If you are hooked into Amazon, you might appreciate it, otherwise it’s just one more annoying carrier add on.

Camera

In my opinion, the One X has the best camera in a smartphone, so I was expecting the same with the DNA. It has the same F/2.0 aperture lens along with ImageSense. I found the pictures to be as good, but no better than the One X. There is at least one improvement with the DNA that I don’t believe the One X has, and that’s the flash. There are now five levels of brightness for the flash depending on the surroundings. You will also find some differences in the app itself. Some of the menus look a little different, but nothing too drastic. You can change settings for ISO, white balance, shutter, etc., but you can’t save them. Here are some example photos.

 

HTC also brought the same f/2.0 aperture lens to the 2.1MP front camera and it’s a full 88 degrees, which means you can get a lot more in a photo or a video chat. After hitting the shutter button, there is a countdown from 3 to make sure your and/or everyone is ready for the photo. In the below photos, you can see the difference. The left one is from the DROID RAZR MAXX HD and the right one is from the DROID DNA. As you can clearly see, the DROID DNA shows a lot more bottles.

Video quality is on par with any Android phone. You can shoot 1080p video from either the rear or the front camera at a 10Mbps bitrate and 30 fps.

Closing

I consider myself lucky that I get to review a lot of different phones, but on the flip side, it can be a little boring since there are so many. Only a few phones really excite me, and I have to say that HTC really excelled this year. Looking back at 2012, I would say I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing the One X and the DROID DNA over any other phone. With that said, is the DROID DNA the ultimate DROID? HTC delivers in just about every category: build quality, display, power, and the camera. Notice how I said “just about”? For me, the battery is the only issue. If it could have had either the DROID RAZR HD or DROID RAZR HD MAXX battery, it would truly be complete, but nowadays it seems as though there is always going to be something missing. For some of you, the lack of a microSD slot is enough to not call this the ultimate DROID, but 16GB is plenty for the average person. Since I am just about 100% in the cloud, it’s plenty for me. As I mentioned earlier, the battery isn’t a deal breaker for me based on my lifestyle, but because of it, I can’t call it the ultimate DROID or even the ultimate smartphone for that matter. What I can say about the DROID DNA is the same as what I said about the One X when I reviewed it: “This is the best Android phone hands down.” So it’s not the ultimate, but it’s oh so close, and I will highly recommend it to anyone that tells me they have $200 to spend on their next smartphone.

Update 2:

As a reviewer it’s easy to say a phone is great, but as a reader, you always have to wonder if the reviewer is willing to shell out their own money for one? Well with mobile phones, it’s not always so easy since most of them are carrier dependent. It just so happens I’m a Verizon customer, but I still have one year left on my most recent contract. That means that I had to pay full retail ($599) for it. I can’t think of too many phones that I would be willing to do that with, but the DROID DNA is one of them. It’s that good.

 

 

» See more articles by Robert Nazarian


  • dheeraj

    ultimate Droids dont have 16gb non expandable memory….they should have atleast had an SD card slot.
    Also it is priced 200$ more than nexus 4….so I wonder why would anyone go for this?

  • Mike

    I stopped reading at the point that they said there is no micro sd slot. Done deal. No longer interested.

    Idiots.